How many mistakes have you made so far in graduate school? What have those mistakes cost you in terms of time, money, and missed opportunities?
This article is a collection of tips from PhD students who answered the following question:
If you could start over from the beginning of your graduate school program, what would you do differently? What mistakes did you make? Did you miss some opportunities?
Save yourself some pain. Learn from the experiences of other graduate students who have been there before you.
If you are still applying to graduate school, you might be interested in our helpful resources for GRE prep.
Some of the links included in this article are affiliate links for The Graduate School Site. For example, we frequently refer to the 7 day free trial of Magoosh GRE study prep and The Princeton Review's Free GMAT Practice Test. If you make a purchase through our affiliate link, then we will get paid a small commission for the transaction. This commission will not increase your price for the service.
Take Care of Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Health – Graduate School is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Overall, I have very few regrets and I would have done almost everything exactly the same.
I ended up at a school that was a great fit for me and have better mentors than I could have dared hope for. But here are a couple of things that I would say to myself at the start if I could:
1. Don’t take the highs or the lows too seriously.
It’s amazing when something works out, but be cautious and expect that there will be more challenges and complications. And what may seem like a devastating setback rarely is. Lots of projects don’t work out and a result that surprises you might actually lead down a much more interesting path.
2. Graduate school is much more of a mental health challenge than is generally appreciated.
Projects can seem unending, their success or lack of is personal, and you need to be able to accept valid criticism to get better. That’s not easy. It really is important to stay connected to family and friends, focus on self-care, and develop the skills to balance your work and life. That’s also important because you’re likely to need those skills for the rest of your career — when it might be even harder.
Lindsay Relihan, PhD Candidate in Applied Economics
The Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania
I think most students have a nagging feeling that they could always do better and that feeling can sometimes be paralyzing depending on how you construe the situation in your head.
It’s easy to interpret this feeling as a deficiency or as a sign that you as a person aren’t good enough — especially if you’re an underrepresented student in academia. Call it imposter syndrome or being a perfectionist, but either way, this feeling is completely normal.
Feeling like you’re not doing enough comes with the territory of graduate school or any creative position because there are always new things to be learned and new ideas to be formed. I think this discomfort can be a sign that you’re doing something right by challenging yourself to reach higher.
What I’ve learned is to take ownership of your weaknesses and identify what you can do to improve.
If you’re in a supportive program, there should be resources available for any concerns you have. If they aren’t available or you don’t know what to look for, take it upon yourself to ask. Most likely, there are other students who will feel the same way and by taking charge of your weaknesses, you’re paving the way for future students in need.
Don’t be afraid of your vulnerabilities and always remember that progress is better than perfection.
Cintia Hinojosa, Ph.D. Student in Behavioral Science
The University of Chicago Booth School of Business
If I could start over, I would recognize much sooner that it’s important to celebrate the little victories.
We are in a profession where we and our work are constantly critiqued and this can take its toll at times.
I eventually learned that celebrating small victories (e.g., a nice note from a faculty member, positive feedback after a small department presentation, etc.) reminded me of my progression and helped me maintain a positive outlook.
Danny Zane, Ph.D. Candidate in Marketing
Fisher College of Business
The Ohio State University
1. Finishing a Ph.D. is a long-term commitment.
School will consume your life, as is expected, but looking back now I wish I did a better job balancing life and school.
An important part of enjoying and succeeding in a Ph.D. program is a healthy state of mind and body. I wish I was as strict on myself to go out and have fun, enjoy a new city, and exercise more as I was towards my courses and research.
Some people are really good at maintaining this balance, and it’s a good idea to take some tips from them or hang out with them more.
2. No one knows you and what’s best for you better than yourself.
We have to make a lot of choices in grad school (courses, specialization, research projects, collaborations, career trajectory, etc.).
The advice we get from fellow classmates, advisors, and mentors is invaluable. I do think, however, often we take ourselves for granted, especially in a new environment.
I pushed back on a lot of things as a student and I actually wish I pushed back more.
Menbere Shiferaw, Doctoral Candidate in Public Policy
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
New York University
I think for me or any other student who leaves their native country to pursue studies, a lot of time goes into adjusting here and getting used to the system.
And it is bound to happen, but maybe what I would have done differently is manage time as well as emotions better. A lot of days, it felt overwhelming and it took a toll on my productivity so I would like to have managed that better.
Also, I collaborated and discussed my doubts and problems with a few people but not that often so that is another thing I missed out on, needed to network more but hopefully this will help me further in the graduate program.
And the last thing I would mention here is that I realized that it is essential that one takes good care of their health in order to keep up with the stress that you have to deal with in a graduate program.
To anybody going through all this, you are not alone. It’s gonna get worse but it will be worth it 🙂
Aditi Arvind, Ph.D. Candidate in Economics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
If you could start over from the beginning of your graduate school program, what would you do differently?
I only applied to Ph.D. programs from undergrad.
If I had to do it over again, I may have applied to a few different master’s programs as well. It may have given me a few more options to hop schools or live in different locations.
However, by going straight to my Ph.D. I did not have to pay for my master’s degree, which was helpful.
In terms of my program, I would pay more attention to the type of lab culture I would be entering.
I lucked out with a diverse and friendly lab group. However, if it wasn’t as diverse in terms of schedules and work styles, it may not have been as smooth and enjoyable. Some people work long hours, weekends, holidays and others take more time off. The diversity allows for whatever schedule I feel is right for me. This was definitely by luck though.
If I could go back I would put more weight into the lab culture for a Ph.D. It’s what you work in for the next 5-6 years.
What mistakes did you make? Did you miss some opportunities?
I put a lot of emphasis on time management and punctuality when it comes to fellowships and opportunities in graduate school.
However, I recently applied for a Society of Women Engineers fellowship and accidentally put my email in for the recommendation letter as opposed to my advisors. Unfortunately, the fellowship committee was unable to alter the email in the system and I’m pretty sure I will not be considered for the scholarships.
A combination of lack of sleep and haste lead to a missed opportunity (note to self: don’t put yourself down as a recommender. Not “recommended” in my opinion haha).
Alexandra Polasko, Ph.D. Student in Environmental Engineering
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Alexandra also participated in a project put together by Working in Science where she shared advice for aspiring environmental engineering Ph.D. students. She shares her opinion on a few topics including:
- How applying to a Ph.D. program is different than applying to an undergraduate program
- Why it is important to research the professors and the culture of a program before you apply
- Her advice on which courses to take at the beginning of a program.
You can check out the video below.
You Have to Learn How to Prioritize and Focus on What is Important
A piece of advice I have received from fellow academics is to learn how to say “no”.
As scholars, we are lucky to be constantly bombarded by interesting opportunities. Yet, there are only so many hours in the day, and we need to learn to prioritize these opportunities based on what we find most intellectually exciting, is best for our career, and makes sense in the context of our personal lives.
To a certain extent, I wish I took such advice to heart earlier in my graduate program. As a new graduate student, you are suddenly surrounded by many brilliant people with diverse ideas and perspectives.
Everything is new and exciting! It is easy to get pulled in many intellectual directions. Yet, although some exploring is necessary to figure out what topics and methodologies you find most compelling, your time in graduate school is also limited.
Not every course is of equal importance and not every research opportunity is worth pursuing.
Being protective of your time right from when you arrive on campus can make your grad school experience less stressful and more productive.
Matthew Regele, Ph.D. Candidate in Organizations & Management
Yale School of Management
I’d be happy to contribute some of what I wish I’d known when I started graduate school. Here are some of the main things I can think of right now:
1. I wish I’d taken the time leading up to my first day of class to get more familiar with the literature in the field.
Even reading 5-6 articles from each of the A-level journals in my field would have helped me get a better feel for what scholarship in my chosen field looked like.
2. I wish I had better prioritized the work I did during the first two years.
The coursework you complete during the first two years is the BEST opportunity we all get to build an effective foundation as a scholar.
Time should be given to coursework 1st, reading journal articles in our sub-specialties 2nd, and doing research 3rd.
Whenever possible, though, it’s important to find ways to combine priorities (such as using actual research projects as your course projects).
3. I wish I hadn’t spread myself so thin during my first two years.
I was so excited to get in and start working on projects, that I sought out and joined 3 different research projects during my first year. In doing so, I spread myself so thin that the quality of my work suffered, which hurt my nascent reputation as a student-scholar in my department.
Eventually, I had to recuse myself from a few projects, which helped me be able to contribute higher quality work to the projects in which I was still involved.
4. I wish I had dedicated more time to serving others during my first two years.
One of the unintentional side effects of graduate school socialization is the tendency for many of us to become self-centered (if we aren’t already). The work we do is often solitary, and it involves intense competition for high accolades in the classroom, research positions with certain faculty, journal publications and, ultimately success on the job market.
With all the time we spend figuring out what we need to be successful, how we need to develop as scholars, the sacrifices we will make to publish more effectively, and what steps we need to take to get the jobs we all want, it’s easy to become obsessively introspective.
Setting aside some time to serve others is an important link to reality that gives us an opportunity to make an immediate difference in others’ lives (as opposed to the more distant benefits we hope our work will bring to society in the future), and it makes us better people and scholars in the process.
For those of us who have families, it can mean spending undivided time with our family members (parents, siblings, spouses, significant others, children). If we don’t have family nearby, it is easy to find service opportunities in local churches or in the communities in which we live.
We don’t have to set apart much time each week to serve, but we do need to be consistent about it if it’s going to help us regularly step outside of ourselves and remember our place in an interconnected world.
Benjamin Pratt, Doctoral Candidate in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources
Krannert School of Management
How to Set Priorities and Create Your To-Do List
Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg is on our list of productivity books for graduate students because the principles in the book are based on the latest research in psychology and behavioral sciences but the main ideas are expressed in compelling stories that are easy to internalize. The book includes specific frameworks for organizing your work, including a particular way to create to-do lists.
If you want some quick tips on creating an effective to-do list, check out his video below.
Graduate School is Not a Solo Enterprise – Rely on and Learn from Your Relationships
If you could start over from the beginning of your graduate school program, what would you do differently?
For me, I would go back and choose my courses a little more strategically.
In my program we take courses for the first two years only, which seems like enough until you realize that you need to learn a ton of different methodologies, and learn to build theory, and take all the department seminars offered.
I wish I had started in advanced methods courses earlier – my first year I was intimidated by these courses, so tried to ‘ease into’ them by taking statistics courses that really just ended up being a semester of review for me and ultimately not a great use of time.
If I had taken the plunge and taken those courses earlier, I would be much further along in my methodological development and would feel more comfortable with some of the analyses I need to do for my current research projects.
What mistakes did you make?
Your first year is all about making mistakes, so it’s hard to think of just one.
The one that stands out is from my first semester in my first departmental seminar in a subject I was not familiar with. Each week one of the students in the seminar was randomly chosen to walk everyone else through the provided discussion questions and answer them for the class.
The second week of that class, I didn’t understand the readings at all and had tried my best to answer the discussion questions, but went into seminar with the mindset that surely I wouldn’t be chosen to present, I could just learn from others and try to do better next week.
Of course, I was chosen to lead the discussion that week, and I struggled to present and ended up relying on the rest of the group to crowdsource answers.
When I talked with my cohort mates later, they were supportive and understanding, and asked: “Why didn’t you ask us for help earlier this week?”. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could rely on my cohort to understand those readings – I had assumed that this was a solo venture.
So the lesson to learn here is that grad school is not a single-player game, get comfortable asking and being asked for help, and always always always assume that you will be the one to be called on to lead seminar discussion.
Did you miss some opportunities?
I think in general I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity presented to me. My hesitancy to take upper-level courses earlier means that I won’t be able to take some courses that I would really like to now, but I could always audit later.
Ellie Stillwell, Doctoral Student in Work and Organizations
Carlson School of Management
University of Minnesota
My suggestion is to practice confidence!
It is very typical for early-stage doctoral students to:
1. Be overwhelmed by the amount of information they are being exposed to
2. To assume that they don’t know enough to start making contributions
3. To decide to wait ‘until they are ready’ to really start sharing ideas and incorporating feedback.
While it may be easier said than done, I would encourage early-stage doctoral students to test out their ideas on anyone – faculty and other students – who will listen! Take the criticism, wrestle with how to incorporate it, and reach out again.
Constant ‘experimentation of ideas’ will lead to continuous improvement and growth of confidence in your capabilities as a researcher and communicator of ideas.
Elizabeth A. Luckman, Ph.D. Candidate in Organizational Behavior
Olin Business School
Washington University in St. Louis
If I were to start over at grad school, I would try to do the following things differently:
1. Never underestimate the power of “interest”.
As graduates, we often come under peer pressure in choosing subjects, career paths and organizations. However, it has been my experience in subsequent life that “interest”, be it in a subject, career path or organization, or lack thereof, plays a critical role in one’s eventual success or failure in a career.
2. Network better.
Often times in the mad race that a lot of graduate programs are, we lose sight of pausing for a bit and developing interpersonal relationships. Not only may these contacts help in tangible ways in one’s long career ahead, there are innumerable intangible benefits, nuggets of learning that one gets which help in a more rounded understanding of one’s own field.
3. Be better organized.
This is often a very underappreciated and undervalued piece of advice. But the ability to think clearly, normally, brings forth solutions to even the most pressing problems. A chaotic life leads to a chaotic mind, which adversely impacts one’s decision making.
A more organized schedule (and life in general) goes a long way to making clearly thought out and well-informed decisions, which, more often than not, are right.
Srinivasan Rangarajan, Ph.D. Candidate in Accounting
Simon Business School
University of Rochester
Practical Tips for Graduate School Students
If I were starting over again in the program I would be more active in identifying a mentor.
At times we don’t know what we need to develop, but a mentor can help round us out. Mentors also help to identify goals and know how to attain them.
Remington Curtis, Ph.D. Candidate in Management
Eller College of Management
University of Arizona
Know the job market early in graduate life, especially for Ph.D. students. Although the job market changes every year, it is better to think about what you will do on the job market one year earlier. It will be helpful.
Lusi Wu, Doctoral Candidate in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources
Krannert School of Management
I am an international student who is studying for a Ph.D. in Economics. When I first arrived at the UIUC, it was my first experience of studying outside of my country.
Even though I had traveled to a few other places before, moving out to another country with totally different culture was really tough for me (by that time I didn’t even know about culture shock and especially that I could experience it).
After the first couple of weeks, I started to feel very homesick and miss my friends and relatives. Also, I start getting depressed because of cultural shock. When you are used to things which work in a certain way, and you change the environment, it is always stressful.
As a woman who was raised and lived in a country where traditions are very regarded and social norms determine the actions of everyone (especially women), I had a hard time adjusting to the US.
My first mistake was that I concentrated too much on those differences and spent a lot of time trying to label things that were new to me. Sometimes, I got depressed because of my thoughts.
Once I even wanted to give up on my program and go back to my country because I thought I would never get used to life in the US. Everything seemed so wrong, both socially and religiously.
For example, women in my country are not socially accepted to drive a car, even though there are no legal restrictions (seems crazy right? ).
Here in US, seeing a lot of women drivers, I was thinking that maybe it is wrong, it is dangerous, women don’t know how to drive, it must be very unsafe here (this is not a good example probably, but thoughts like this are very common, especially like a “joke” statements, where women are targets of blame). Women are expected to wear certain clothes, to act and speak a certain way in my country.
How to be extroverted in a class when as a woman you didn’t have many opportunities to express yourself before?
How can you compete with male students when they are “smarter” than you?
How to raise your voice when as a woman you shouldn’t do it?
Very demanding and stressful, right?
If I had an opportunity to start over, I would embrace these differences and make my best out of it.
Now I realize the beauty of independence, freedom, and equality that women have here (although there is a huge way to go still but compared to my country it is a lot). And my recommendation to newly arrived students will be, to be open to this new experience.
Everyone can grow and improve. You don’t need to be Americanized, change your lifestyle, or adopt new values.
However, you can have your freedom to realize what are your “actual” values, what you really embrace, and what are the leftovers and junk from social pressure and the fear of opinions.
Mariam Arzumanyan, Ph.D. Candidate in Economics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
I would start the research project as early as possible.
There is so much coursework in the first few years of the Ph.D. program. It would be great to balance the coursework and the research activities, particularly leaving time to work on the research project.
Xin Zhao, Ph.D. Candidate in Accounting
Fox School of Business
The first thing I would do differently is to take more method classes (e.g., econometrics, Bayesian stats, machine learning etc) or even finish a master’s in quantitative econ/stats before entering the Ph.D. program.
The reason is simply that exposure is very important and time you have in the doctoral program is very limited.
In addition, the job market is getting more competitive in terms of (1) expectations for high-quality publications and (2) many talents from economics, statistics, and computer science are entering marketing job market.
Thus, having a solid training is a crucial part of being competent. Though we usually have two years of coursework, it would be efficient if you already start your training in your pre-doctoral training.
The second thing is not what I would do differently but what I am doing. It would be nice if prospective students can do it even earlier.
If possible, stay connected with people who work in the industry, and more importantly, learn how to communicate with practitioners in a simple but professional manner. Actively learn about the business problems they have, the solutions they are seeking, and about opportunities for collaboration.
Finally, do not be over-obsessed with the research ideas before entering formal Ph.D. training.
Your research interests might change dramatically from the moment when you apply to the moment when you are actually doing research. At least for me, what I wrote in my statement of purpose is way different than what I am doing. A Ph.D. is an evolving process where we learn about the field and keep exchanging ideas with other scholars.
So please be open and passionate about new ideas and knowledge.
Yixing Chen, Ph.D. Student in Business Administration (Marketing)
Mays Business School
Texas A&M University
I think I could have taken more challenging courses in the first semester.
Since I came from another country, I didn’t know whether the knowledge I already had met the requirements, so I took the same course that others in my department take.
After coming to the US, I understood that I was taking diversity for granted in India, but it is an important aspect here. For example, I can speak 4 languages, but it is only after coming to the U.S. that I realized people are surprised when they hear that I can speak multiple languages.
I could have structured my summer course better.
Although I had taught for 8 years in India, the cultural difference made it challenging to connect with students. Also since it was a summer course, the students were mostly working and therefore I could have reduced the content for better student experience.
Hariharan Ramasubramanian, Ph.D. Candidate in Accounting and Information Systems
Eli Broad College of Business
Michigan State University
Graduate school is difficult enough without repeating the mistakes of those students who have gone before you. Learn from their mistakes. Are you doing something now that one of these students is warning you to avoid?
My challenge for you: Take the time to assess your current path in graduate school and check it against what these students are sharing with you.
A lesson you learn and apply today could save you countless hours of wasted time and significantly improve your outcome in the end.